SYRIA: Foreigners’ interest in traditional furnishings counteracts weak local demand

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The rich, dark wood furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay or mosaic decoration is a trademark of Syrian living rooms, luxury boutique hotels and government offices. But now the artisanal furniture from Damascus’ traditional markets is increasingly attracting the eye of foreigners.

In the shops on Straight Street, furniture makers are experiencing a rise in exports, fueled by demand predominantly from the Gulf.

Al Moazen is a family outfit whose roots are more than 300 years old. The workshop, at the back of the shop, is abuzz as the handmade items are constructed. Chairs with beige cushions and mirrors surrounded by mosaic clutter the shop. Small tables and chests are stacked high upon one another.

‘There is a lot more interest from outside Syria than there was,’ says Abdullah al-Moazen, the youngest generation to go into the business.


Demand, according to Moazen and his fellow artisans, comes predominantly from the Gulf, Cyprus, Australia and Germany. A whole room, costing $500 to $20,000, depending on the quality of the pieces, is the usual order. ‘We supply a lot of bedroom, office and living room furniture to Gulf families,’ Moazen says.

Moazen attributes the demand to the renowned quality of Syrian handicrafts in combination with rising interest in the country and its growing export market. Exports of furniture reached $81 million in 2008, outstripping imports, according to government figures.

Tourists buying one-off pieces are another important source of revenue for Straight Street furniture makers. Oriental artifacts have long attracted travelers heading east, and a rising number of them are trekking the road to Damascus -– tourism rose more than 40% in the first eight months of 2010, compared with the same period in 2009.

It’s a good thing outside interest is rising because local demand is falling, according to the artisans.

Lower-cost plastic and wooden furnishings –- often imported from China -– are popular, and increasing living costs from economic liberalization have dented the finances of the local population.

Samir, an Old City resident in one of the Christian quarter’s old courtyard houses, proudly opens the door to his guest room outfitted with traditional furnishings; no expense has been spared. But it is only one room -- the rest of the rooms contain plastic chairs and tables.

‘Thank goodness for the new trend for boutique hotels,’ says one maker. ‘Without them we might be struggling with local business.’

-- Sarah Birke in Damascus